Study Guide for Bleachers by John Grisham - BookNotes

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The first day of Neely Crenshaw’s journey back to his hometown of Messina begins with a description of Rake Field: the high school football field, which people consider more hallowed ground than the local cemetery. He has arrived in October, and as he drives around the field, the memories of his days there come pouring back. When he had played there, it had been simply known as The Field, but after Coach Rake had left, the town named it after him.

Neely had always known deep in his soul that he would return someday, even though he had told himself that it would never happen as long as Rake was alive. Now, Coach Rake is dying and that means a funeral with hundreds of former players packed into the stadium, all wearing their Spartan green. He peruses the field now after 15 years away and sees the two practice fields, a luxury no other school in the state can boast. However, he’s surprised to see that there are untrimmed weeds at various spots, something that would never have happened when he attended Messina High School. He remembers how dozens of volunteers would gather every Thursday afternoon with their gardening shears to trim the grass. It’s a sign to him that the glory days are gone.

Neely also remembers how no one was allowed to walk on Rake’s field. The coach would curse anyone who dared, including the Mayor, who set into motion an attempt to have Rake fired. However, Rake had more political clout than anyone in the town, and the Mayor was firmly defeated in the next election.

Then, he imagines the pre-game jitters he had always felt with the fans, the band and a very nervous number 19 - Neely Crenshaw, high school All-American, the highly recruited quarterback with the golden arm, fast feet, plenty of size, maybe the greatest player Messina had ever produced. Of course, that is Neely Crenshaw in another life. He used to play in front of crowds of 10,000 or more, but he has heard that they are half that size now. He remembers how his parents sat on the forty yard line, because the college recruiters had the prime seats on the fifty. He had personally received over 100 recruitment letters, with 31 offering him full scholarships, and had been the object of a huge press conference when he had signed with Tech. It had never made sense to him that a town of 8000 could seat 10,000 or more each game, but he knew that the overflow came in from the county; they were the people, who his father warned him away from, and who stood in the north end of the field. They would drink, fight, and curse themselves, the opposition, and the referees. However, as number 19, he adored their raucous behavior, and they certainly adored him. He had never lost before them in three seasons with over 100 touchdown passes.

Then, Neely switches his gaze to the giant scoreboard in the south end zone. On it is the history of Messina football and thus the history of the town itself. There were the undefeated seasons of 1960 and 1961 when Rake was not yet thirty years old. However, it is The Streak that stands out, the years from 1964 to 1970 when Rake’s teams went undefeated until Wayne beat Messina in the state championship. Eighty-four wins in a row became a record, which made Rake a legend at the age of 39. Unfortunately, the town had a terrible time recovering from that defeat,and the following winter was a hard one. Rake brought them out of their gloom the next season with a 13-0 record and a state championship win over the same high school, which had ended The Streak. There were also state championships in ’74, ’75, and ’79. This was all followed by The Drought - from 1980 to 1987, Neely’s senior year, Messina went undefeated, but never won a state championship, and there was definite discontent in the town. They wanted another streak.

Also on the scoreboard are the tributes to all the Messina heroes - seven numbers retired, including Neely’s number 19 and Roman Armstead’s number 81, the only Messina player to ever play in the NFL. Beyond the scoreboard is the field house, a facility that any college would envy. No expense had ever been spared for Rake’s teams and now there is something there that Neely had never seen before: a monument with a brick base and a bronze bust of Rake himself. Under the bust are the all the statistics that any Messina citizen could rattle off from memory - 34 years as coach, 418 wins, 62 losses, 13 state titles and an undefeated streak of 84 straight wins. To Neely, it’s not a monument, but an alter, and he can almost see the Spartan fans bowing before it every Friday night. The last building Neely notices from his perspective is the steeple of the Methodist church behind which sits the house that the town had given Rake on his 50th birthday. Inside, he is sure, are Miss Lila and her three daughters waiting for Rake to take his last breath. He doesn’t think any former players will be there.

The next car into the Spartan Stadium parking lot holds Paul Curry who had caught 47 of Neely’s 63 touchdown passes. They had been close friends and co-captains, the famous duo of Crenshaw to Curry. Now, he works in the Messina bank his grandfather built, married to a local girl. Their wedding had been Neely’s last trip to Messina. Paul tells Neely that Rake is not yet dead and then gossips a little about the present team and their coach. Neely asks him if he ever comes into the stadium when it’s empty and walks around remembering all those good years. Paul tells him that he did for awhile, but now he’s given it up. However, since Neely hasn’t been back for 15 years, Paul believes he’s still dreaming about being the All-American quarterback. Neely responds that he wishes he had never seen a football to which Paul answers that he never had a choice, because Rake had them in uniforms when they were in 6th grade. They had played on Thursday nights and drew more fans than most high schools. Even then, they had memorized all forty plays Rakes had in his book. Neely still knows them all. Now Paul observes that those were the years when they were the heroes who could do no wrong. They were kings of their own little world for three or four seasons and then poof! it was gone. Neely admits that when he was in college he would drive by the school, but he had never wanted to see Rake, and about one month before they fired Rake, he had bought a six pack and climbed up in the stands to re-play all the games in his mind. It had been wonderful until he re-lived the last game, and then, it hurt all over again. Paul says that over time he forgot about being a hero and became just a fan.

Another car pulls in and it holds Orley Short, the slowest linebacker in history according to Neely. He was a logger from the county and one of the players Rake loved the most, because they were so big and powerful from logging. Another man arrives in the stadium, and Neely can’t place him, a frustration, because he feels he should know them all, all of Rake’s players, a small fraternity whose membership is now forever closed. Paul then mentions how Neely is still Messina’s All-American. He has only to walk into Renfrow’s Café and see the huge photo still hanging above the cash register to know it’s true. He is still the subject of the town’s eternal debate: who is the better quarterback, Neely Crenshaw or Wally Webb. However, Neely can’t enjoy all the memories the way Paul can, because Rake is still back there, an ever-present part of them all.

Paul receives a phone call while they reminisce from Silo Mooney, who indicates he’s on his way to see them both. Neely observes that he hasn’t seen Silo since they graduated, but Paul reminds him that Silo never graduated, because he had a little trouble with the police over four controlled substances. Now he is in the midst of a very “colorful” career. He was dishonorably discharged from the Army, worked on off-shore rigs, and peddled drugs until he was shot at. He sold shoes, cemetery lots, used cars, and mobile homes. Now he has Old Man Joslin’s junkyard, which he swindled away from him, fixed up a warehouse on it, and turned it into a legitimate body shop. Of course, behind it is a chop shop, which fences stolen parts. Paul expects the FBI to walk in any time with a subpoena, so he’s made all the bank records ready when Silo is busted! Paul also warns Neely to be careful what he says about Rake, because Silo loves the man. Rake had loved him, too, because Silo had owned the middle of every field he played on. His nickname comes from his build - six feet tall and as wide as he is tall. He averaged three personal fouls in every game he played, and no one had ever been cursed by Coach Rake with as much frequency and enthusiasm as Silo Mooney.


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